CAPE MAY — The federal government wants higher construction on the coast to reduce flood damage, but that creates unique problems for a seaside resort built centuries ago at ground level.

America’s Oldest Seashore Resort, which started developing its tourist industry as early as 1740, has one of the nation’s largest collections of 19th century Victorian homes. It also has Colonial-era homes from the 18th century and even some construction from the late 1600s.

Mayor Ed Mahaney worries that new federal flood maps could force owners of these old structures built at ground level to put them on piling.

“This could jeopardize the integrity of the historic structures. The question is how much physical jacking can these old structures take,” Mahaney said.

The vision of Victorian homes sitting on piling is also not one the city would embrace. The term “streetscapes” is used quite often in a city that parlays its unique seaside architecture into a thriving tourist industry. Any changes to exterior construction in the Historic District must be approved by a local review board called the Historic Preservation Commission. Even something considered positive, such as solar panels, has to be hidden from streetscape views so tourists will feel a visit is a trip back in time.

New federal flood regulations could change all that. That is the worry as the city considers the impact of new flood maps expected to be released later this year. Those maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be the basis for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) that will come out in 2014. The FIRM maps haven’t been updated in a quarter-century.

Maps only recommend the elevation of buildings depending on different zones where FEMA has charted the chances of flooding over a given period of time.

The maps don’t make owners elevate, but if they don’t it affects federal flood insurance rates already expected to increase because of a 2012 federal law, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act, that is phasing out subsidies for such insurance.

The maps could also spur local zoning changes that would require stricter elevations for new construction or rehabilitation work that equals or exceeds 50 percent of the market value of a structure.

How does a city with large 19th century Victorian buildings, constructed at ground level and on small lots, elevate?

“It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. There’s going to be zoning involved,” HPC Vice Chairman Andrew Fontaine said.

Fontaine said part of the bed-and-breakfast he owns that was built in 1800 may have been moved from a different section of town, South Cape May. The old homes, with lathe-and-plaster walls and balloon-frame construction, are surprisingly strong.

“That’s why the construction remains today. The problem comes when people take out the plaster and put in sheetrock,” Fontaine said.

Some question what Cape May would look like with the old Victorians sitting on piling. Staircases may have to be reworked on such small lots to still spill out short of the sidewalks. There are also questions about exceeding the city’s height limits since many structures are already at three stories. Most of the city has a 35-foot limit.

Bed-and-breakfast owner Elan Zingman-Leith said bulk requirements on the city’s small lots would basically allow ranch homes. He said many of the city’s 1,200 Victorian and Edwardian homes were preserved because, as pre-existing construction, their large size was grandfathered in.

The new FEMA maps could expand flood areas, but there may be some relief from the regulations in the Historic District. The city is a National Historic Landmark, with its Historic District controlled by guidelines from the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service. Preserving the historic character is the main goal. If this comes into conflict with FEMA, it would be a disagreement between two federal agencies.

Mahaney hopes some historic properties will be declared exempt. Structures on the National Register of Historic Places, or the state register, generally have the most protections from changes.

FEMA spokesman Darrell Habisch said historic properties are among the “subtleties headquarters needs to address” when the new flood maps come out, but he also said there are currently no exemptions.

FEMA is telling owners of historic homes to take a close look at flood risks in their area and what they can do to avoid them.

Working in the city’s favor is that some of the oldest construction is on the highest ground. After Hurricane Sandy, FEMA rushed out preliminary maps so those rebuilding would do so closer to the elevation standards coming out later this year. Those maps contained Advisory Base Flood Elevations, or BFEs, with details on the two zones where elevations would be raised. The maps identify high-velocity wave zones, called V-zones, along the beach and Cape May Harbor that would require the highest elevations. Waves would be expected to be over 3 feet in a 100-year storm.

They also identify A-zones, areas off the beach but where a storm could bring moderate wave action of 1.5 to 3 feet, which would also require higher elevations. The city has A-zones mostly along Cape Island Creek and on the east side of town built originally by filling in tidal wetlands. FEMA is considering requiring V-zone construction in the A zones, but that hasn’t been decided yet. Mahaney is hearing the V-zones will merely be expanded.

The new maps will have higher BFEs in these zones, and houses below those levels will pay substantially higher flood insurance, according to FEMA. The city would likely change its zoning to require new construction or restoration work exceeding 50 percent of the value of the home to be at the higher levels.

A surprise is that much of the old section is not in a V-zone or an A-zone. A key standard is whether a zone has a 1 percent chance of flooding on a given year, the so-called 100-year storm, and much of the Historic District is not in one of those zones.

City Council has already introduced an ordinance to conform to the Advisory BFEs. A public hearing and vote is set for April 2. It requires most new construction and major reconstruction work to be elevated to the Advisory BFE for that zone plus 2 feet. Variances can be granted to build lower, but the city warns that could increase flood insurance premiums.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711